By CATEY HILL
Not too long ago, there was no such thing as a gay retirement community in America. But as the number of retirement facilities which cater specifically to seniors with a common interest, hobby or trait has multiplied, so too have the options for gays and lesbians.
There are currently about a dozen seniors-only housing developments that are marketed specifically to gays and lesbians, says Andrew Carle, the founding director of the senior housing administration at George Mason University. That's up from just a few a decade ago. And retirement experts expect the trend to continue. "As the economy and the real estate market improve, we may see more of this," says John Migliaccio, the director of research for the MetLife Mature Market Institute, who has studied the aging gay and lesbian population extensively.
Other types of senior facilities are also beginning to cater more to aging gays and lesbians, including continuing-care developments, affordable retiree housing and community drop-in senior centers. For example, the first gay continuing care retirement community -- a facility that offers independent, assisted living and Alzheimer's care -- for gays and lesbians opened this year in California, and another gay and lesbian senior center is scheduled to open in New York in January 2012. "There are now more options than ever for the aging GLBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community," says Catherine Thurston, the senior director of programs for Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders (SAGE).
Despite the recent growth, retirement options aimed at gays are likely to remain limited, say experts. Many of the large, traditional retirement community developers aren't interested in niche developments, says Migliaccio, and funding for public facilities devoted to the gay and lesbian community is difficult to get -- especially in more conservative areas of the country. The recession hasn't helped much either. RainbowVision Santa Fe, which opened in 2006 as one of the country's first gay and lesbian retirement communities, filed for bankruptcy in June amid financial problems and a fight between management and residents over costs.
Still, experts say demand for these offerings is growing -- especially with the first baby boomers now hitting retirement age. By some estimates, between two and seven million gays and lesbians will turn 65 over the next two decades. While some of these boomers won't want to retire in primarily gay and lesbian communities, many others will, says Thurston. Some people choose gay-only communities because they want to be around like-minded people. That may be especially true for the one in four gay and lesbian boomers who report "great concern" about discrimination as they get, according to a MetLife Mature Market Institute study.
Here are some of the newer retirement options for gays and lesbians.
In 2007, Alice Herman, 76, found Sylvia, her partner of 46 years, on the floor of their Los Angeles apartment unable to get up. At first Medicare covered most of her hospital bills, but the longer Sylvia stayed in the hospital, the more the out-of-pocket costs began to add up. Two years later Sylvia died. "I had only enough money left to afford two months' rent," says Herman. "I was afraid I might have to live in my car with my two cats because I didn't want to burden my friends." Then Herman heard about Triangle Square, a gay and lesbian retirement community for low-income seniors in Hollywood, Calif., where she says Social Security covers her rent and other costs.
The Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing organization (GLEH) built Triangle Square in 2007. The $21.5 million development, funded in part by the City of Los Angeles and the California Housing Finance Agency, has 104 apartments that rent for between $200 and $500 per month for residents who meet certain income and age requirements. As with all the gay retirement spaces, straight people cannot be legally excluded. Plans for similar housing projects are in the works in Chicago and Philadelphia, says GLEH executive director Mark Supper. "The affordable side of this issue is critical," he says. "There are a lot of gay seniors who literally live on Social Security -- that's especially hard in big cities."
Like many straight seniors, older gays and lesbians are also having trouble selling their homes in this difficult economy, making the move to a retirement community all the more difficult. For others, the notion of a specialized retirement community doesn't fit, but they may still want to be part of a community of other gay and lesbian seniors, says Thurston. That's where local community centers come in. The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center has a dedicated senior program that has been open for about a decade and offers more than 70 programs, including yoga, painting classes and glee club. The program operates through a combination of private, state and federal funds. (The Obama administration gave it a $380,000 grant in 2009 with the promise of more funding for two more years.) The centers also offer some gay and lesbian specific services like referrals to counselors or lawyers for discrimination and gay rights issues.
So far there are only a handful of specifically gay and lesbian community centers throughout the country, but their ranks seem to be growing, experts say. For example, the New York City gay and lesbian senior center will open in January 2012. It is the first full-time municipally funded gay and lesbian senior center, the organization says, and will be open Monday through Friday and some evenings, offering free programs and low-cost meals.
Continuing Care Retirement Community
One in five gay and lesbian boomers reports being unsure of who will take care of them if they get sick, according to the MetLife Mature Market Institute study. For this group, continuing care -- a facility that offers both independent, assisted living and sometimes Alzheimer's care -- may have special appeal, say experts. This year, FountainGrove Lodge, the first continuing care facility for gays and lesbians, opened in Santa Rosa, Calif. Nestled on 10 acres, this facility offers a pool, tennis courts and fitness center, as well as some more surprising perks including a pet park, pet care, movie theater, on-site chauffeurs, the option to have home-delivered meals and a "wine cave." But like many continuing care facilities, all those extras don't come cheap: residents pay between about $295,000 and $925,000 to get a home and monthly dues that range from about $2,500 to upwards of $6,100.
Do It Yourself
For a lot of gay and lesbian seniors, there simply aren't good retirement communities or senior centers in their area of the country. The dozen or so communities tend to be in traditional retirement regions; the "Birds of a Feather" facility, for example, is located near Santa Fe, N.M., and "The Resort on Carefree Boulevard" is in Fort Meyers, Fla. As a result, many gay seniors are taking a do-it-yourself approach to retirement. Thurston says it's not uncommon for gay women to purchase condos or homes with a group of other lesbians. "It's a bunch of entrepreneurial, community-minded women coming together," she says.
Indeed, the co-housing option is often cheaper than a retirement community, she says. Still others have discussed building more formal co-housing senior lesbian arrangements by buying a plot of land together and building multiple homes on it -- though this has yet to get off the ground due to the significant start-up costs, says Joani Blank, a former board member of the Co-Housing Association, a organization devoted to advancing communal housing arrangements, who notes that it also takes a lot of effort to plan and build such a community.